New UN report takes firm stand on women's rights in Afghanistan

The 'Silence is Violence' report documents the failure of state institutions to protect women from increasing violence in public spaces.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters
Indian actress and former parliamentarian Shabana Azmi speaks at the launch of a United Nations report about violence against women in Kabul, Afghanistan Wednesday.

Widespread violence against women in Afghanistan is being ignored in a culture of impunity that neither challenges nor condemns this violence, says the United Nations in a new report calling for an end to the prevailing abuse.

Wednesday's report, titled "Silence is Violence," documents the increasingly insecure environment for women in public spaces and the failure of state institutions to deal with it.

Despite claims to the contrary, say advocates, women's rights have been viewed as a luxury by an international community reluctant to question those in power for fear of upsetting Afghanistan's fragile coalition government and delaying stability. But this document, which was co-written by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCR) and the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), treads new ground by directly confronting the issue.

The argument that it's more important to "have security rather than human rights ... is absolutely the wrong concept, since you need human rights for sustainable peace," says Dr. Sima Samar, the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, explaining that the denial of women's rights is usually on the grounds of culture and tradition.

Perpetrators from all walks of life, says report

The report documents violence that inhibits participation of women in public life, identifying perpetrators as antigovernment elements, local traditional and religious power holders, women's own families and communities and, in some instances, government authorities. Sexual violence against women was found to be perpetrated by close family members, staff of prisons and rehabilitation centers, military commanders, and members of illegal armed groups and criminal gangs.

"The pattern of attacks against women operating in the public sphere sends a strong message to all women to stay at home," says the report. "This has obvious ramifications for the transformation of Afghanistan, the stated priority of Afghan authorities, and their international supporters."

Less talk, more action, say advocates

"Rhetoric [has not been] matched by reality," says the head of UNAMA's human rights unit, Norah Niland. "There has been a verbal commitment, and now we need real investment in practical measures. Unless the negative trends are challenged, they will get worse."

The UN report and its message were backed at the highest level of the UN's presence in Afghanistan. It was released in the residence of the UN secretary-general's special representative, Kai Eide, the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan.

In his remarks, Mr. Eide stopped short of blaming Afghan government institutions, but said the issue of violence against women in Afghanistan was not being faced and was holding the country back.

A little star power adds punch

Adding oomph to the report's release Wednesday was the presence of Indian actress Shabana Azmi, who spoke of the similarity of challenges in India and drew an appreciative response from Afghan women, many of whom have grown up watching her movies.

Officials within the large UN community deployed in Afghanistan, who have been advocating greater attention on the issue of women's rights, expressed cautious optimism about the UN's willingness to take a firm stand. Said one senior UN diplomat who declined to be named: "This is good, but let's see how far it goes."

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